The Belarusians

-- Belarusians crowd onto a trolley in Minsk.

These are images of Belarus. What is Belarus? It’s a tiny nation of ten-million in the middle of Europe. Almost nobody in America knows about this country. But it exists. Some of the people there are dreamers. Some are poets, patriots, and some are among the kindest people I’ve ever met.

Belarus, a gateway between Western Europe and the Far East, has been under the thumb of one invader or another for at least 500 years. The Mongols were once rulers, then the Poles, then the Russians, later the Soviets. Both of their Slavic neighbors have tried to destroy the native Belarusian language and they have nearly succeeded.

I’ve been to the country twice. The negative assessments by the Lonely Planet guide and near propaganda of other outsiders, who would like to see the country become a cheap source of labor for Europe’s factories, are definitely biased in their own way. I say biased because I’ve learned to mistrust the assessments of outsiders to any culture, including those who live outside America but think they understand it.

Within hours of my arrival on a Soviet-era jet I boarded in Germany, I was at a picnic in the countryside toasting my arrival with a group of curious hosts. I found myself unraveling years of Cold War-era misconceptions of what the country and culture would be like. It became clear I didn’t know much about Belarus.

Belarus is not America. People generally don’t smile unless they mean it. In many ways it is still a semi-Soviet state. Consumerism is not a way of life. The media there is not an industry. I was surprised to find they do have American music and American music videos.

I found out Belarusians can be stubborn. I met one man who only speaks Belarusian as an act of cultural resistance. I found out the Belarusian language is alive and well in the villages where the people have always found refuge from invading forces. Even 80 years of outsider control by Soviet government based in Moscow couldn’t finish off this culture. Belarus is not a country of pushovers as has been suggested by certain scholars.

I made these images with a 35mm SLR and a 35 mm Contax rangefinder. Some of the photos were made of total strangers while walking in the streets and others are of my hosts. When I see pictures of Belarus they are always either news photos to accompany stories critical of either their political system or the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. I wanted to show another side of this country and culture.

With these photos I hope to show some of the charm, the beauty of Belarus and also a hint of the hardscrabble existence of a tough people capable of taking care of themselves.